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Searching For Les Expos

The nostalgia kind of crept up on me.

I wasn't expecting to feel nostalgia on our family's trip to Montreal, a trip designed (mostly) by my wife to get us away from the stresses of the day job and the business of running a family.

But somehow I found myself in front of Olympic Stadium today, or the "Big Owe", as it was called at one time, with memories of piling in a car in Connecticut eighteen years ago with a pal of mine to watch a baseball game there.  Here.

I never expected to be here talking about the Montreal Expos.  But I am.

I never expected to want to buy a Montreal Expos hat today - to want that hat more than any other souvenir I could buy on this trip.  But I did.

The memories of a baseball game I went to so many years ago became a trip down memory lane of the Expos franchise - the most amazing, improbable, groundbreaking, doomed franchises in the history of professional sports.  Their story is one of optimism triumphing over reality to come into existence, coming tantalizingly close to tasting postseason success, and finally, when the end came, one of the saddest, most injust experience in history about the end of a sports franchise.

I may have been the only one in the city of Montreal today who felt the pull of the Expos, but standing there on the sea of concrete looking up at the Montreal Tower jutting out of the Stade Olympique amid a unique sea of cables, it was there.

Ray and I piled in the rental car on Friday, May 16th, 1997.  My crazy scheme, months in the planning, was finally in motion.

In the early spring of 1997, single, unattached and lonely, I needed to get away from the stresses of the day job and the failure of being able to hold down a steady girlfriend.

It was a point when I wasn't going to be planning romantic getaways to the Gulf of Mexico.  I was going to finally put together a trip that interested me - and if nobody could hop in the car with me and go on this trip, the hell with them all.

I looked through the USA Today each day in early 1997 for the full Major League Baseball schedule, and when I finally got the paper in my hands, I pulled out the schedule and conducted an experiment:

If I took a week off for work, how many games could I catch if I took a tour of Major League ballparks, starting and ending at m house?

I looked at the schedule, and found a way that I could catch nine games in eleven days, most of them in ballparks I had never seen.  Montreal's Olympic Stadium was the first one on the trip, and that Friday we made the journey across the Canadian border.

Take Us To Your Leader
Then, as now, the first thing I noticed about the Parc Olympique when we pulled into Montreal after an eight-hour drive is the presence of concrete everywhere.  The next thing I noticed is that there is nothing about the stadium that might make anyone even think accidentally about baseball.  Then, as now, Montreal's Parc Olympique looks like a huge concrete UFO has landed on a concrete strip northeast of everything that is fun about Montreal and are fixing the large hole on top of the stadium that appears to be an accident upon its landing.

Ray and I walked towards the stadium, no idea where to get tickets.  Some French Canadians that felt somewhat threatening came up to us, and asked us if we had tickets, in the exact same way scalpers since time began have asked clueless fans if they had tickets.  I said "non," in rusty, AP-level French, but this vaguely threatening guy actually told us he wanted to give us his tickets he got for free.

I was unclear as to why the Expos were giving away free tickets to the good residents of Montreal in 1997, but they were, and because these friendly French Canadian dudes couldn't use them, then we got to.  I thanked him, noted the $0.00 on the tickets, and proceeded to the opening of the spaceship.  Ray was dubious the tickets were legit, and I shared his skepticism, but they got us into the upper level.  We would be attending our first and last home Expos game for free.

It May Have Been Charmless, But It Was Baseball
If the outside of Olympic Stadium evoked spaceships, the inside was a miracle of East German-style central planning and 1970s concrete architecture.  Designed for the Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, it was a true multi-purpose field, home not only to the Expos but to the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and other indoor events for the city.  In order to convert the field for baseball, five dirt mounds were cut out around the four bases and the pitching mound.

Our seats were metal, snap-back chairs that, in the upper level, were a color of yellow not seen in nature.  Uncomfortable to sit in, they were, however, very effective noise makers.  When the Expos got a good rally going, fans would slam the chairs up and down to make a metallic "snapping" noise - which was about the only sound that could travel in the stadium.  The concrete soaked up all the other ambient sound in the place.

In the past, Olympic Stadium had a hole in the center of it to let the light in.  It was supposed to be a retractable roof - pop cap is probably a more apt term - but it notoriously never worked.  When it was open, a bizarre light circle would appear on the AstroTurf field, to the delight of pitchers and the frustration of hitters everywhere.  When the midday sun hit home plate, pitchers became basically unhittable.

By the time we were there, the people in charge permanently sealed it with a sort-of metallic cap, making certain no sunlight could accidentally come into the venue, even by accident.

Put it this way: Anyone who thinks Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium was charmless obviously had never seen an Expos game in Montreal.

The game Ray and I watched was an exciting one, going 11 innings and won 15-14 by Les Expos over Les San Francisco Giants.  We missed P Pedro Martinez, who was an Expo at the time, but we did see OF Barry Bonds, OF Rondell White and OF Vladimir Guererro have strong games.  Vlad's game was especially notable, going 2-for-2 and reaching base four times, adding a sacrifice fly for good measure.  Bonds belted a home run early to give the Giants an 11-2 lead before Les Expos came all the way back, in the most improbable of fashions, and tied and won the game.

But what I remembered most about the game for years was not the game itself but the flaccid atmosphere in the stadium.  It wasn't for lack of trying from the locals, though.  They would clack the chairs to bring the home team back - I saw that, and that stood out.  But baseball can't survive without sunlight in Soviet style architecture.  It's literally the opposite of what baseball is really about.

I've told the story of my baseball tour to people many times, and I've talked about the different ballparks I've attended over the years.  Olympic Stadium was notable to me mostly for its weirdness, its feeling of anti-baseball, and the fact that the Expos used to play there, but don't anymore.

*****

It was strange going back to Olympic Stadium this week, returning to the site where I saw Vladimir Guererro and Barry Bonds.  That's because when you go, there was no evidence they were ever there.

The Parc Olympique does not only consist of the stadium.  It houses a biodome, botanical garden, and also hosts an Olympic-sized pool and the Canadian Olympic offices, much of which we visited.  Within walking distance is a MLS stadium for the newest soccer franchise to play there, the Montreal Impact.  Their stadium is literally everything Olympic Stadium is not - open-air, intimate, with a playing surface of beautiful, natural grass.

The Biodome was pretty cool, a great place for kids to experience nature, and the botanical gardens were also beautiful.  The Olympic pool was surrounded by those metal seats that made the clacking sound, which I demonstrated to my family.

In the main area, there are faded, rusting plaques of all the medal winners from the 1976 Olympics.  We looked for the plaques with the names of Nadia Comenici and Bruce Jenner, two of the greatest athletes of those Olympics, and found them, a bit worse for wear, but still there.  The decathlon that would make Jenner a household name happened here, in the Parc Olympique, the site where the Expos played.

But I couldn't escape the strangeness of the whole area.  It was a strangeness I experienced in 1997, and a strangeness I also experienced on that day.

There wasn't a lot there commemorating what had been done there - not much commemorating the great events that had happened there.  A few plaques, and that's it.

No special graphic showing a smiling Bruce Jenner with his gold medal,  No pictures of Montreal Alouettes Grey Cup celebrations.  No people outside selling vintage Montreal Impact jerseys, or Montreal Canadiens jerseys, either.  Just a handful of swimming gear with cheesy faux-retro "76" on the front - that was it.

And no evidence that the Expos ever were there.  And believe me, I looked.

There was no guy in front of the stadium, on a weekend, selling vintage Steve Rogers Expos jerseys.  No Montreal Royals jerseys with Jackie Robinson, or even a sky-blue Rusty Staub shirt.  I looked all over the concrete expanse, went in multiple gift shops, and looked in the Montreal subway, which looked like it was painted by the same folks that designed the Match Game set.  Nothing.

It was strange to me that the city of Montreal would not attempt to glorify their sporting history at all on this site - especially when their sports history is something worth writing about.

Montreal's sports history is incredibly rich.

Le Domination Des Stanley Cups
The main sport, the one which defines Montreal the most, is hockey.  The Montreal Canadiens are the Yankees of hockey, with 21 Stanley Cups to their credit and the heart and soul of the entire province as well.  Since 1996, a rare Stanley Cup-less period for Les Canadiens, Montreal averages well more than 20,000 fans per game.  They are always a tough ticket to get in town.

But Montreal's baseball history is great and notable as well.  Jackie Robinson's first professional games in the Major League Baseball system were with Brooklyn's then-farm team, the Montreal Royals.  Montreal has supported baseball through integration.

There's also evidence locally here of fan support for Major League Baseball, too.

Just recently Montreal's mayor arranged preseason games here this year between the Blue Jays and Reds, drawing more than 96,000 starved fans in the same charmless stadium that hosted the Expos before.

And this push for a new round of Major League team hasn't ended there, either.

As my family and I have been travelling through Canada, remnants of Les Expos have been popping up everywhere.  When sitting down to dinner, a 30-for-30 type program talking about the 1994 Expos popped up on the TV screen above our dining experience.  In the morning at breakfast, a poll, taken by the Montreal mayoral office to coincide with the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, showed a majority of Montreal residents willing to buy tickets to see a game.

But Montreal is a peculiar city - its sports teams, and legacy, almost underground from its cosmopolitan nightlife and odd concrete, 1960's centrally-planned apartment block feel to the rest of the city.  Residents seem to be crying for a lovable baseball team to call their own - and Les Expos have all the ingredients to be very, very lovable as a sports franchise - but at the same time baseball seems very foreign to the French-speaking and French-leaning viewpoint of the city.  That, more than any other reason, is why Les Expos had to play in a lightless concrete spaceship for nearly thirty years.

The story of the Expos franchise was best summed up on Jonah Keri's Up, Up, and Away, a book from the well-known Grantland writer that I never knew existed until I jumped on the Expo bandwagon this week.

From that I learned that the Expos nearly didn't even make it through the starting gate: they couldn't renovate the old Montreal Royals' stadium to become a major-league facility, and until the Parc Olymique was finished they had to play in a makeshift facility called Jarry Park that was crazily expanded to host 28,500 fans until the Olympics were held.  It's unimaginable for a major-league franchise to play in such a temporary stadium, and especially the first-ever international MLB franchise and the first bilingual franchise, but that's what the Expos did.

Despite being such groundbreakers, despite the presence of loads of talent over the years, from Andre Dawson to Pedro Martinez, the Expos couldn't overcome their strange stadium, the fights with the Blue Jays, their fights with Major League Baseball, and finally, the weird situation where the rest of the league voted 28-2 to contract and force the Expos out, essentially forcing their group to sell the team, and ultimately pushing the team to Washington, DC where they saw new life as the Washington Nationals (themselves named for the former DC team that was forced out of there much earlier).

The One and Only Youpii!
Even the story of the Expos mascot is strange.  Youpii! was the original mascot designed by one of the masters of the Muppets, but when Major League Baseball essentially destroyed the Expos and forced them to move, Youpii! switched sports, becoming the Canadiens' first official mascot.

It honestly took me very much by surprise.  I never meant my trip to Montreal and Quebec to be all about this.

But I learned on this trip that there are three types of sports fans: those that pick the teams in front, trying to deny defeat; those that stick to the teams where they live (or lived), whether they're great or terrible, and those that fall in love with the stories of the towns, the fans and the people who love the franchises, and end up as fans of the teams whose stories they discover.

It's probably no secret that I'm one of those "storybook" fans.

And when I find myself a good story to follow, I found I couldn't wait to find myself an Expos replica hat and share my knowledge of baseball in Montreal with my son.

I would find a shop that carried my precious Expos hat.  Wading through the Quebec Nordiques replica jerseys and the pink Canadiens hats, I found one.  It's mine now - my way of saying I remember.

Walking around on my vacation, I've looked for other Expos shirts and hats, and I haven't found any.  I thought at first it was because they didn't remember, but I realize now that their sports fandom is below the surface, underground, below the cement blocks.

On this trip, I've talked to my son about the Expos.  I showed him the hat, the crazy logo (is it a multi-colored M?  The initials ELB?) and the stadium.  I think he's becoming a fan.

He might be falling in love with a defunct team that is known more for surviving against all politics, money and even were cheated out of a proper chance at a World Series title thanks to the 1994 strike that cancelled the Expos' high water mark as a franchise.

Some might think this may not be a great idea.  And maybe it's not.  But in my defense, I didn't mean for us to become Expos fans.  The Expos found us.

And when Montreal gets a franchise again - I think they will, maybe by pilfering the Rays from Tampa - the new Expos will have two new fans.

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